Soul and the city - words from graffiti artist Mohammed Ali

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Soul and the city - words from graffiti artist Mohammed Ali

What are your early memories of graffiti?

I remember reading quickly through Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant. I grew up in the 1980s. I remember how the book opened my eyes to New York street art and the hip-hop scene. In those days, the idea hadn’t reached most people yet and it wasn’t about ego, cars and women.

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Victor de Jesus

I liked street art but it was all about leaving a ‘tag’, a mark. And I didn’t want to just ‘tag’. I wanted to change something ugly into something beautiful. I didn’t want to just make the artist important. I wanted to make the art important and leave a ‘tag’ on earth – a mark no one could take away.

Tell us about your latest ideas…

I’ve just finished a wall painting in East London near the Olympic Stadium. It shows the powerful image of Tommy Smith and his Black Power salute. It shows the idea that sometimes the power of your ideas can, if necessary, go against your country. I’m working on the next wall painting to go up in East London, around the Brick Lane area. Another big idea I’m working on is with the organization Soul City Arts. The organization is planning Writing On the Wall 2 in London – theatre with live art and poetry.

What do you feel strongly about politically?

Injustice - I hate it. I get angry about Palestine; I got angry about apartheid in South Africa. I get angry about governments when they try to stop ideas and stop people living with respect. I get angry about governments when they want you to do things in a certain way or criticise you for the clothes you wear or how you look.

Who or what gives you ideas?

The city gives me ideas. It makes me put life back into the city spaces we live in. It tells me to take back our public space. It tells me to take the power away from the governments who control how our spaces look and feel. It tells me to return the city to the people. Why do our cities have to be so grey and ugly? Colour gives life back to the city.

What’s your biggest fear?

My biggest fear is if I can’t do art. My fear is if I can’t show ideas from my British Muslim city background. I think it would kill me. Ordinary people like my art and there are many communities which understand the power of art – especially street art. I’ve spoken to audiences at the British Museum and the Greenbelt Festival. But, sadly, my own community’s institutions do not support my art, especially those which have the money and the power to help me. They see no value in my art. They don’t recognize that it’s for dialogue, interaction and engagement; it’s a place which can change old ideas. I’ve worked with white working-class students and they have told me how the way they see things has changed forever.

Where do you feel most at home?

I was born and grew up in Birmingham, England. I grew up with Irish and South Asian kids in our neighbourhood. My late father, who migrated to Birmingham, felt part of the city and its people. That’s probably why I am attracted back to Birmingham. I’ve worked in many parts of the world, including New York and London but I come back to Birmingham. Many might see Birmingham as divided and it’s true, it does have different communities that don’t talk to one another. But my hope is to reconnect these different communities to show that we are more similar than different.

Tam Hussein is an award-winning writer and journalist who has spent many years in the Middle East and North Africa. tamhussein.co.uk

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see http://www.newint.org/columns/finally/2012/12/01/mohammed-ali-interview/